Ezra: Buliding for God

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 9, 2008

Ezra 3:8-13

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The Lord's Day Evening

March 9, 2008


Ezra 3:8-13

Building for God


Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas



Now turn with me, if you would once again, to the book of Ezra. It's been a couple of weeks since we were in the book of Ezra. We are picking it up in chapter 3 reading from the eighth verse thru to the end of the chapter.

Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.

O, Lord our God, this is your Word, every jot, every tittle of it. You caused it to be written. Holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. And as we read this passage this evening, Lord, help us again by your Spirit to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear with me the word of God:

“Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the Lord. And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers.

And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord.

“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when thy saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”

Amen. And may the Lord add his blessing to that reading of his holy and inerrant Word.


There's something tremendously exciting about this passage, is there not? You read this passage and you say to yourself, “I wish I could have seen that.” Or perhaps, “I wish I could have heard that.”

We are to imagine, oh, I don't know, maybe upwards of 80, 90, 100,000 people, now, all the ones who came back, and that was 43,000 and change, and those who were already in Jerusalem, and they’re all there squeezed together on that temple mount. And there's this tremendous act of worship going on as the foundations of the temple are laid.

Now, a couple of weeks ago, we were looking at the earlier part of this chapter and we saw the building of the altar. The people of God have been captivity in Babylon. Some of them have been there for parts of almost 70 years. Some of them have been there for perhaps 50, 55 years or so. Cyrus has issued a decree that they should return. It's the year 538 B. C. And they are building the altar. There was an altar there, that the Samaritans had built in that period of exile. The Jews were always suspicious of anything the Samaritans did and they discarded that altar and rebuilt the altar of the Lord.

It was in September – October period when they returned. This altar was built within about a month or so of their return. And this altar (I'm trying to envisage the size of it) it's about 40 by 40 feet square and about 20 feet into the air. So, maybe up to the roof of this balcony, maybe; maybe a little more. And imagine a quarter maybe of the size of this room. (I may have got my proportions wrong.) But imagine something like that. High up with steps leading, up a ramp rather, leading up. There were rules about no steps for the priests. Won't go into that now. 1 But there was a ramp leading up to the altar and on this altar hundreds, no, maybe thousands of animals were slaughtered for Feast of Tabernacles.

It's amazing. They've been back a month. They've been gone into captivity for 70 years and the first thing they do when they come back is dwell in tents.

Now, it's fun for one night. But I've done it one night in my entire life. I've done the tenting thing and I survived one night and don't wish to do it ever again. [laughter]

But they build these booths to remind them that they are pilgrims. Even though they’re back in Jerusalem, they’re pilgrims. Every step that they make, they make by the hand and deliverance and providence and provision of Almighty God. They come back with nothing and they must leave this world with nothing. And every step of the journey that they make, they make by the blessing of God. And they’re reminded of that as soon as they come back to Jerusalem.

They have sent money way up north to the land of the Phoenicians, Tyre, and Sidon where the trees are, the big trees like in Washington State or those states up there to the northwest where the big trees are. That's where the trees came from, the wood for the first temple, Solomon's temple.

Those trees, of course, would have to be cut and felled and prepared and brought by ship along the Mediterranean, down to Joppa and then inland and up to Jerusalem. It would take a while and that's why in verse 8, we're in the second year. Actually, it's six months later. We've moved from fall to spring. It's April-ish in the year 537 B.C. Springtime — blossom is in the air just as it is out here. And they've gathered to rebuild the foundations of the temple.

And I want us to see three things.

I. The effort required in rebuilding the temple.

I want us to see, first of all, the effort that this work demanded; the effort that this work demanded.

Do you notice how the author of Ezra wants to underline the fact that everybody was involved in this work? They were all there — the priests, the Levites, and all who returned — everyone of them in verse 8; all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They were all there. This was a collective work on behalf of the people of God.

And in this careful attention to detail as to the building itself and as to the oversight and supervision of the builders, the Levitical Priests are called into service.

Now, the priests began to serve at various ages depending on the period of history and depending on the need. Sometimes it was age 30, sometimes it was at 25. Here it's at 20. The reasons are obvious. There was a lot of work to do and there were no priests in Jerusalem and they needed as many as they could get to oversee this massive project that had to be done according to strict, revealed rules and regulations.

And heads of families, leading Levitical families, supervised, superintend the building of this foundation of the temple. It's a sophisticated degree of organization and structure and coordination and the building of the house; you notice in verse 8, it's called the work. They appointed the Levites from 20 years old and upward to supervise the work. It's a work. It's a divine work. It's a holy work.

Now, we were made to work. We were created to work. It's not something that comes in just because of sin. There was work in the Garden of Eden. Adam had to work. He tilled the ground. He grew vegetables. He had to superintend the garden.

We know nothing about what that's like to work without pain, without sorrow, without thorns and thistles and frustration and weeds. Work is part of creation. It's part of the new creation. There’ll be work in heaven to do. They will serve Him night and day, the book of Revelation says in the closing chapter. There's work to do in heaven; glorious work, fulfilling work, exalting work to do. And this is a work. God has called them now to labor, to action, to service, to ministry, and the success of this work is dependent on several things.

It's dependent, first of all, on the corporate enthusiasm and involvement of the people of God and it's also dependent on the skill of organization and supervision. And Ezra wants to point out that both of things are present. There's the enthusiasm, at least initially. And there's the organization and the skill and the supervision.

You might be tempted to think now, if you didn't know the story, of course, that this is a happily ever after kind of tale. They returned to Jerusalem, they rebuild the temple, the worship of God progresses along nicely, revival comes, blessing comes, but that's not the story, is it?

We’re going to see how that's not the story. It took 20 years to build this temple because they began to build it but they stopped building it. They turned to do other things.

In the book of Haggai, a prophet that comes about 15 or 16 years after this event, Haggai tells us that they forsook the building of the temple. Possibly, possibly took the very wood that had come down from Tyre and Sidon for the purposes of erecting this new temple, this second temple. And they used that wood to build palatial houses for themselves. How quickly they forgot the mercy and grace and provision and kindness of God! This glorious day of blessing would soon be forgotten.

We know it all too well. When we've been in the worship of God and God has come and blessed us and souls are on fire and then within an hour, within a day, within a week, it has gone. Satan has come and snatched that seed away. And that which we promised in the secret place of our hearts in the time of worship was taken away.

There's a work to do here and it called for effort and, at least now, at least here, at least at this moment, we see that collective enthusiasm of the people of God. It must have been a wonderful thing to behold. How blessed are they that dwell together in unity. And there's a unity here. There's a cohesion here. These are days of blessing. These are days of extraordinary blessing.

II. The praise that this work elicited

But the second thing I want us to see is the praise that this work elicited. The praise that this work elicited, as they worked it occurred to them that God had not forgotten His promise. Now, you see what they do. They begin to sing antiphonally, a bit like we did this morning, (at least if you were here in the second service this morning, if you were at the first service, you missed that) but in the second service we read Psalm 136 antiphonally, repeating that “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever”, 26 times.

And there's a similar reference here. It's not, I think to Psalm 136, it may well be an illusion to something that Jeremiah writes in Jeremiah 31 when he's promising the new covenant that God would come again to restore His people. Jeremiah is prophesizing before the exile. Jeremiah is alive and well when the exile comes and he goes off to Egypt during that period of exile. And he prophesied that God would come again in blessing and in power and in mercy. And what is being cited here may well come from that 31st chapter of Jeremiah, or it may be an illusion to a verse in the 100th Psalm. And it may be a conflation of several verses that the steadfast love of the Lord endures toward Israel — God's covenant, God's mercy, God's covenant faithfulness.

It's a message that you find in the opening chapters of Zechariah. He a post-exilic prophet like Haggai; ministering about the same time as Haggai, about 15, 16 years into Ezra's future here. God will remember His word. God will remember His promise. God will keep His oath. He will not abandon His people. He will not forsake His promise. And they burst into song. They burst into worship as they see this work being done.

Now, what kind of work was it? This is not building the temple. That hasn't been done yet. This is just laying the foundations and the foundations were, to all intents and purposes, already there, you understand. It was easy for the Babylonians to destroy the structure of the temple. It would have been more difficult for them to actually destroy the very foundations itself. And masons have come down. Workers in stone, that is, had come down from Tyre and Sidon to help in this project to clear away the stones that had fallen from the walls of the temple. Huge stones requiring enormous manpower and effort and then, all of the rubble that you can imagine would accumulate over 50, 60, 70 years, and all of this is cleared away and the foundations are laid and they can see now the structure of the temple before them and they burst into song. Because what did the temple represent to them? It wasn't just a building, you understand. To the Old Testament saint the temple represented the place where God was present, where worship was conducted, where sin was forgiven and atoned for, where blood was sprinkled, where the Holy of Holies was to be found, and the Shekinah glory was to be found and the Ark of the Covenant was to be found. But there is no Ark of the Covenant now.

And we’ll come to that in a minute. But some of them, you can sense as they look around and see what's taking place, that God is restoring the fortunes of Israel. God is merciful. God is gracious. He's good! And they sing now the goodness of God, so songs of praise with trumpets and cymbals.

I want to say a number of things here about this praise. First of all, did you notice there how they praised and gave thanks to God at the end of verse 10 — according to the directions of David, king of Israel, according to the directions of David, king of Israel. There it is again. You know, we harp on about it here, but it's in the Bible, you understand, that the worship that they conducted was worship that was in accord with what God had revealed to them.

Now, to be sure, there's a sense here in which they want to build the temple on the very spot where the old temple was. There's a sense in which they want to keep the traditions of their people. There's a sense and a limited sense, and you Southerners can readily identify with that tradition, that sense of fathers and forefathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers. And what Ligon was saying – was it last week? – “these are your people” as he stood at that gravesite and his father is pointing to those who had died during that war.

There's a sense in which these people would have all the natural feelings of citizenship and as sense of root, a sense of heritage, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity — all of those things. But, there's far more than that.

It's that the worship of God must be done in accord with the principles that he has laid down in His word. There's a principle of regulation here. They’re not free to build any old temple in any old place. They’re not free now to begin to say, “Well, we don't need a temple. We don't need sacrifices. We don't need the shedding of blood. We don't need priests. We don't need the ritual of Levitical ceremonies anymore.” They weren't free to do that. They must do it according to that which had been laid down. And nothing that has happened in the coming of the New Covenant has changed that principle.

We, too, must worship in accordance with that which God has laid down in His word.

And then, you notice this praise that they give. And they give this praise to God. Now, in one sense, don't you think they would have been within their rights to have reasoned something like this and to say, “Well, who's done this work?” Well, they had done it.

“Who had moved all these stones? Who had cleared away this rubble? Who had perspired and labored in the building of this foundation of this temple?” Well, they had.

So, why are they not praising themselves? Why are they not having eulogies about themselves? Why are there not great speeches saying how wonderful they are and how hard they have worked? And instead, do you see the instinct? It is the instinct of a believer. It is the instinct of a Christian. It's the instinct of a man or woman whose heart has been changed by God. The instinct is always God-ward. Whatever we do, whatever we accomplish, no matter what it is, the praise is always to God. We work out own salvation, but only because God works in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure.

There's a work to do. And these men and these women, they labored; they labored. But all the glory and all the thanks and all the praise goes to God. It goes to the Lord because He was the One that had brought them back. He was the One that had moved the heart of Cyrus. He was the One that insured that money had been given from the coffers of Persia for this effort. He was the One that had sent His Spirit to motivate and to challenge and to enable. And they gave praise to God. They gave praise to God with loud shouts of acclamation that could be heard in the distance from Jerusalem.

III. The nostalgia with which this work was enfused.

The effort that this work demanded and the praise that this work elicited, but thirdly, the nostalgia with which this work was infused; what a terribly moving description amidst all the noise and cacophony on Mt. Zion. You could not distinguish those who were shouting for joy and those who were weeping with nostalgia. What's going on?

Well, it's this — that there were some older ones (they would be in their eighties perhaps) and they could remember the former temple. They could remember Solomon's temple. They could say, “I was there. I saw it. I was there in the glory days. I was there in Passover of 610 and what a day it was! And this, this is nothing. This, this poor effort, it will never be like it used to be. Every church has those people. There's a few here, no doubt.

When I was called as a minister of the gospel to a church in Belfast in 1978, the minister of the church was a well-known, respected, revered conference speaker. Everyone loved him and to this day they speak of him in hushed tones. I remember him giving an opening address on several occasions at a conference I used to attend. And you would listen with rapt attention. He had been the minister for 52 years. He was the only minister the church had ever had. And I was 25. He was into his 70's, still not retired and I was 25. And not once, not once did he or his wife or anyone in the church that I can recall (and I say this with absolute honesty), not once do I ever remember them saying to me, “He would have done it differently.”

And he would have done it differently. Or, “He would have said it this way.” Not once do I ever remember them saying that, but they said it here. Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Say not that the former days were better than these?” The good old days — those good old days.

Or Zechariah 4:10, “For who has despised the day of small things.” And this was a day of small things in comparison to Solomon's temple.

Do you see what it says, my friends? And it's serious. It shows a terrible ingratitude for the present. God had come to them in mercy. God had come to them in kind providence and what they were saying was, “It's not like it used to be.” And in saying that, in saying that, my friends, they were showing ingratitude for what God was doing in the present, in the here and now.

It's saying something more than that though, because those sounds of lamentation and woe were the seeds of discouragement; they were the seeds of discouragement. Little wonder that the building of this temple ground to a halt, little wonder. It is so discouraging to hear those words, “You know, we did it better in our day.” O, for the spirit of Barnabas, the son of encouragement.

It was my final year, I was about to graduate from University. I was being told by the church that I belonged to at the time that I should think about entering the ministry. I had preached maybe six sermons in a formal setting and I met a man who then was a minister of a church in Liverpool, in England. I met him in a Christian book store. And he said to me, after introducing himself to me and me introducing myself to him, he invited me (he was a reformed Baptist minister) and he invited up to Liverpool to preach twice in about 4, 5 six weeks time ahead. He did not know me from Adam, except that he knew the church that I belonged to and trusted them.

The morning sermon was OK and that's the kiss of death when somebody says the sermon is OK. [laughter] The evening sermon is a sermon I have tried hard to forget. [laughter] There was no redeeming feature about it. And I cannot forget it. Every now and then I remember it. It was on Ephesians 4 and I hope and trust and pray that it wasn't recorded [laughter] and that it won't come back to haunt me.

He never said anything negative about that sermon. I know what his opinion was; I know what his opinion was. And he was right to hold it, but he never told me that. Instead, he encouraged me. He bought me a book on the Reformers and the theology of the Reformation and he signed it and he said some nice things on the fly leaf of that book. That was in 1974. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget it, that little gesture of kindness, that little gesture of encouragement.

These people had been working and laboring to lay the foundations of the temple and there were those who could only see the past. That's all they could see, the former glory, and they were saying that it was better in those days.

I've moved among folk who've studied revivals, The Great Awakening, the 1859 revival, the 1856, ‘57 revival in New York and Jeremiah Lamphier, I think his name was, an extraordinary revival of a prayer meeting that began with just half a dozen people. And within months, there were thousands of people in Manhattan and New York meeting for prayer. It was a revival, an outpouring of God's spirit and I've moved among people who've studied the revivals, the sovereign outpourings of God in the past and it has paralyzed them because they live now for those past days, when there's a work to do right now, right here, in the here and now. We can't manufacture revival. That's a sovereign benediction and blessing of Almighty God and may they come and may they come here, but in the meantime, we have a work to do, to do for God, to do for His glory.

And the sound of that lamentation in the midst of that cacophony on Mt. Zion was the seed that paralyzed and crippled the people of God and brought the building of that temple to a grinding halt.

O, may we see, you and I, the work that God has given us to do here, right now with the gifts and resources that He has given to us and to use them for His glory, to use them for the advancement of His kingdom, and to sing His praises just as they did here “for He is good for His steadfast love endures toward Israel, His people.” May it be so.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. It's always timely. It speaks to us in our own situation and context and we pray that You would apply it now to us. Help us to live out and out for Jesus Christ and for His glory. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.

“Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”


1. Exodus 20:26

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